Marketing through storytelling – an overview for freelancers and small businesses

This week’s blog comes from Jon Wilks, a My Accountant Friend customer and a content strategist who works with small businesses to make the most of their digital marketing. Jon runs a blog on content strategy, where he aims to help people understand how content can make a difference, while demystifying some of the industry jargon.

If you’ve spent any time considering online marketing, you’re likely to have come across the word ‘storytelling’. It’s something of an industry buzzword, and – as with most buzzwords – it can seem a little vague. Does it literally mean ‘telling stories’? Does it mean ‘telling your story’? What if you’ve no story to tell? What if nobody seems to be listening? All valid questions, and ones I hear often in my line of work.

Storytelling in marketing, as far as I’m concerned, simply means finding a way to engage your audience – a way to catch and hold their attention. You see, attention is in vastly short supply. 500 hours-worth of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. Facebook sees upwards of 3 million posts per minute. WordPress, the blogging platform, sees well over 1,000 blog posts per minute. It’s a busy internet out there, and that’s before you take into account the fact that most Web denizens are believed to have an attention span of approximately 8 seconds (down from 12 seconds a decade ago).

To be honest, I don’t put a great amount of store in that last figure. There are lots of people out there, from all walks of life, all using the Internet in a million different ways, so working out an average time span seems a bit pointless.

But whether it’s 8 seconds, 12 seconds, 1 minute or 10 minutes, these statistics make one thing very clear – no matter what line of business you are in, if you aren’t communicating about what you do in an interesting and engaging way, there are plenty of people out there who will do it in your place.

So why, amidst all of this noise, would you want to explore blogging or ‘branded storytelling’? Well, that has to do with the way in which people on the Internet respond to traditional advertising. With so much out there to catch their eye, audiences are fully aware that they don’t have to sit through the dull stuff.

Don’t like the multitude of betting ads that litter your Saturday sports channels? Grab the remote and switch over. Fed up with pop-up ads invading your iPad scrolling? Intall an ad-blocker. Think your friend goes on about their baby a bit too much on your Facebook feed? Unfollow their notifications. The Internet has become an opt-out society, and it has advertisers running scarred.

All of which is why many small businesses are looking to ‘tell stories’ that people want to opt into. Let’s just tidy that ‘storytelling’ phrase up a little bit before we go any further. It sounds nice, it sounds friendly and (to marketing folk) it sounds hip – which is why they use it.

You’re not expected to sit down and compose blog posts that start, ‘Once upon a time…’ What you’re looking for as a ‘brand storyteller’ is a way to keep your audience, whoever they may be, interested in what you do – to get them engaged with what you have to say.

That in itself is too daunting for many people. Most people get self-conscious when they’re asked to ‘tell us something interesting about yourself’, so the idea of writing post after post can seem like pulling teeth.

For most business people – especially those who have launched startups or taken the decision to go freelance – there’s rhyme and reason as to why they’ve set up a company, no matter how big.

They might be exceptional in an area in which people require their expertise, in which case ‘thought leadership’ might be the right way into their ‘brand storytelling’. It could be that they’ve created an app that plugs a gap they’ve spotted in the market, in which case the story of how they spotted that gap and how they plucked up the courage to develop a solution is likely to be both interesting and inspirational.

Either way, if you believe that what you know, or what you’ve created, is interesting and desirable enough to build a business around, it’s likely that there’s people out there interested in reading about it, too.

‘Work out your story. Someone somewhere is sitting very comfortably, ready for you to begin.’

A case study that covers both of the above examples is the website that you are currently reading. My Accountant Friend combines technology and human support in a way that really helps its clients, providing a service that freelancers, independent contractors and other self-employed people find invaluable. They also recognise, because they understand their audience well, that people are nervous of the tax-related aspects of their own businesses (numbers are frightening!)

So, what better way to make them feel more comfortable with the process than sharing a bit of their expertise? Hence the ‘resources‘ section of their website – everything you’ve ever wondered about the mystifying and forbidding word of accountancy explained in a jargon-free, lighthearted way.

It’s my job to help companies work out what that area of interest is, and to help them strategise a way to create content around it. Together, we look at how blogging could help spread the word, or whether it’s something that they could do through a series of videos of podcasts.

I also help them to look at ways to distribute content and measure their efficacy. After all, a story without an audience is a sorry thing indeed. We create them to be shared.

And that’s the biggest conundrum for most people – how to get your content seen, read, and shared. Marketers talk about ‘conversion funnels’, and branded content is a great way to pour customers into the top of that funnel. However, getting people to find what you’re creating amidst all of that cacophonous Internet noise isn’t easy.

It requires a decent understanding of SEO practice and paid distribution, whether through targeted Facebook posts or third-party platforms such as Outbrain or Taboola. It also requires the digital equivalent of word-of-mouth – getting out there and meeting people who can help further your message, either in a more traditional PR sense or through guest blogging. (Clearly I have My Accountant Friend to thank for letting me do that here.)

For freelancers, consultants and other self-employed people, ‘storytelling’ of this nature is a cheap and easy way to establish your expertise and your reputation. All it really requires is time and staying-power.

No worthwhile library has ever been built in a day, and it’s unlikely that you’ll begin seeing a return on your own content collection in anything less than months. But persevere. Someone somewhere is sitting very comfortably, ready for you to begin.

MAF Banner Ad